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Top teacher sets kids up for success

  |   Kristen B. Morales   |   Permalink   |   Kudos,   Spotlight

It's a little after 7 a.m. and in the midst of wrangling bleary-eyed middle schoolers, your phone flickers to life.

It's a tornado warning, and suddenly that stellar morning lesson—the one you've prepared knowing a group of very important classroom observers was coming to visit that day—seems much less significant compared to a weather emergency.

In a situation like this, UGA College of Education graduate and science teacher Joanna Beck put into practice the best lesson she, as a teacher, has learned: Sometimes, you just gotta roll with it.

Joanna Beck

"In that day they did their observations, they were visiting me first thing in the morning," says Beck, a graduate of the middle grades education program who was recently named Clarke County School District's Teacher of the Year, and the process required rounds of observations from district representatives. "So, truthfully, I was nervous. But then the tornado warning came and I was like, 'Oh, this is what teaching's like—you just have to go with it.'"

Beck (BSEd '09, MEd '12), who teaches earth sciences at Burney-Harris-Lyons Middle School, will represent Clarke County for the statewide Teacher of the Year award. That winner then moves on to the national level.

The honor highlights the innovative, hands-on activities Beck plans for her classes. While she acknowledges not all of her students will go on to careers in earth sciences, she hopes the methods they learn along the way—critical thinking and problem solving using physical examples—will help them no matter what path they choose.

"We develop these lessons that will help students think more critically," she says. "They are thinking about why it does that, so when they come into a situation in the real world, they can think, 'Why does this happen?'"

Beck also credits her coworkers and instructional support staff for their work collaborating on lessons. The result is a balance of earth science content, like subsurface geography, and skills development.

For example, while her students were putting together a science fair project, Beck noticed them struggling with writing the procedure, or step-by-step instructions. So she closed the lesson that day by having the students recall the steps to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Easy, her students said as they wrote it down. You take some bread, put peanut butter on it and some jelly, and put it together.

"So the next day I made the peanut butter and jelly sandwich using their procedures. I had an entire jar of peanut butter, and I put my hand in, and I put it between like four pieces of bread. I put the whole bottle of squeezable jelly on it, and I smashed it together," she says. "I was like, 'Who wants to eat it?' And they were like, "Ew! That's so gross!"

From that demonstration, the students realized the importance of being specific, in science and in life.

Joanna Beck

Beck says she's drawn to teach middle school years because it's such an interesting time in the students' lives. And, she's found, students who come through middle school in a supportive environment move on to high school and beyond with self-confidence and the ability to thrive.

When students are engaged in learning in middle school, she says, it sets them up to be creative thinkers and collaborators later in school, and in life. Beck uses examples from the world around us—something she learned in classes at the College of Education—to reinforce the way science touches our lives, and to start kids thinking about how things work.

"When I was in the master's program, it was all community based. We were going out into the community and writing reflections—we would go to the Pennington Company and see their machines; we would go to the poultry plant and see how chickens worked. It was all about the science in our community," says Beck, reflecting on the influence of professors like Norman Thompson and Barbara Andrews.

"I was just amazed, going through those facilities, it was fascinating to me, and it made me see how important it was to get the kids out into the community," she adds. "I think that's so crucial—learning does not only take place in the classroom."

_Note: Have you recently won a Teacher of the Year award, or do you know of a College of Education graduate who has? Please let us know!

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